Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Abdul-Wahhab Al-Misseiri against literal Qur'anic interpretation

In an interesting article on Al-Jazeera's website, the famous Egyptian writer Abdul-Wahhab Al-Misseiri made a valiant argument against the literal understandings of Qur'an that have become popular. In that category, he includes both those who try to find scientific evidence in the Qur'an, as well as those who read its sacred history as if it is actual chronological history. He ridicules those who are happy to find archeological evidence of Abraham, Joseph, etc. to corroborate Qur'anic texts. He says that this is the way Biblical sacred history is read (with dates of birth, etc. for each character), leading to historical inaccuracies. In contrast, he points out, Qur'anic stories are merely "scenes" (from well known narratives?) to make a point, rather than history.

Instead, he argues, one should recognize that scripture is more like literature, and gives multiple examples of poetry, fiction, etc. The main idea is that if we accept the Qur'an to be a Divine revelation for all mankind, regardless of time and place, then it must be addressing the human condition generally through allegory -- so that different humans in different times and places can find insights therein. He goes further to say that allegory and metaphor are necessary to discuss the limitless Divine in the language of humans limited by time and place. He criticizes those who allow only one literal and simple meaning to the Text, saying that by doing so, they usurp the power of the Author and in essence make themselves the authors. In doing so, they exhibit the ultimate form of arrogance, by assuming that they can understand and communicate the limitless wisdom entrusted within the Qur'anic language.

What he promptes, instead, is exercise of the human faculty, to reach admittedly limited human understandings of the human condition in light of Scripture. That is more modest, and more appropriate, he says. I wonder if he would apply the same approach to legal injunctions in the Qur'an: Would you adjust the rules of inheritance based on legal situation, would you adjust the number of required female as opposed to male witnesses for financial contracts, would you allow for "modern" punishments of theft, etc. in place of the literal interpretation of amputation, etc.?

I wonder if he is advocating that view, albeit in a coy manner.